Price Entertainment, Spelling Films International. Screenplay by William Nicholson based on his stageplay. Produced by William Attenborough and Brian Eastman. Directed by Richard Attenborough.
This account of the meeting and subsequent marriage between C. S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) and Joy Gresham (Debra Winger) is, at one level, is a love story. As such, its power comes from the crumbling of Lewis' confirmed bachelorhood and his increasing vulnerability as his devotion to Joy advances.
But this love story is carefully subordinated to serve a more important purpose, which is a completely theological one. The film is really a study of theodicy--the theology of suffering in the context of a loving God. The story begins in the early 1950s, and we find Lewis with his students and colleagues at one of the Oxford colleges. He is happy, relaxed, and confident. At one of his public lectures, he deals with theodicy with academic detachment, yet complete confidence: "It is because God loves us that he makes us the gift of suffering. The blows of His chisel that hurt us so much are what makes us perfect."
It is almost as if God put Joy and Lewis together to force him to re-think his thesis. Lewis prays for a miracle of healing, and Joy enjoys a brief remission of her cancer. Says Harry, the college chaplain (Michael Denison), "I know how you've been praying. And now God is answering." Lewis is delighted, but Joy knows better. She tells him that he needs to let go when the time comes. Looking ahead to the inevitable return of the disease, she tells him that "the pain then is part of the happiness now." While he rejects that suggestion out of hand, he returns to it as the film closes, embracing it and learning from it.
Lewis is genuinely changed through this "shadowlands experience." We see that not only in the skillful acting of Hopkins, but also in the reflection of that suffering in the other characters, such as his brother Warnie (Edward Hardwicke) and Joy's son Douglas (Joseph Mazzello). If you view the DVD for this film, be sure to watch the interview with the real Douglas, now a clergyman. He concludes from the episode that, when one accepts a love relationship, one also accepts inevitable future pain. The movie certainly vindicates his point.
As her cancer becomes worse and worse, it is difficult to determine who is suffering the most. Joy experiences the pain of the cancer, but Lewis experiences the agony of watching her suffer and dreading her pending death. Lewis learns that talking about suffering and actually enduring it are two very different things. His lectures start to approach theodicy with a different tone: "See, if you love somebody, you don't want them to suffer. You can't bear it. You want to take their suffering onto yourself. If even I feel like that, why doesn't God?" Unfortunately, Lewis does not know how to answer this question and the film doesn't seem to know either. God does know suffering, and the greatest testimony to that is enduring his son on the cross.